A New Metaphor for School Turnaround 

As a child, I always watered the leaves of plants.  I poured water onto blooming orchid buds and even submerged individual chilis on our pequin pepper plant in cups of water, whispering to them drink up.  My mother would frequently redirect me, sharing her position that plants drank water from the roots and that my attempts to feed the flora through other methods were at best ineffective and at worst injurious for delicate petals and siblings surprised by slippery floors. 

It wasn’t until my fifth grade science class where we had the chance to grow our own plants where I really started to believe my mother’s faith in roots.  After sprouting seeds in paper towels, we gently planted them in pots of various substances--with dry dirt from outside of our classroom, with phosphorus rich soil purchased from a gardening store, and with the mix of sand and soil that you find in so many parts of South Florida that grows things like palm trees and hibiscus flowers and Zoysia grass.  We fed them different regiments of water and sunlight and watched as some grew and others perished. Like morticians conducting an autopsy, we would study the plants that didn’t make it and examine them next to graphics showing the impacts of various environmental features--too much or too little water, nutrient rich or nutrient poor soil, too dense or too loose of soil--on root systems.  

Other than teaching me that root system invariably are the site of water absorption, this activity taught me that, in order to grow, plants require certain environmental conditions.  In nutrient poor soil and with the absence of sunlight, plants cannot merely will themselves into existence. The material that surrounded them mattered.  

As a component of my graduate studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I have visited a number of schools in the Boston area.  Some were filled with small children and others with the big, high school kids that I am used to teaching. Some drew on arts-centered learning and others on prioritizing the instructional core.  All were undergoing some form of what has come to be called “school turnaround”--or the process of rapidly transforming a school from “low performing” to “high performing,” usually measured by increases in student performance on standardized assessments. 

Definitions of turnaround vary, and carry particular technical meanings depending on context.  For example, for a school to be undergoing “turnaround” according to the Obama-era School Improvement Grant Program standards, the school must fire the principal and all of the staff, with the option to rehire no more than fifty percent of the original staff.  Despite variance in the use of the term, most conceptions of school turnaround share the idea that schools can and should improve rapidly and that visionary leadership is central to the process of school improvement.  Implicit in the metaphor of “turn around” is the presence of a leader, carefully steering their vessel away from its current bumpy and troubled path. Unsurprisingly then, at each site visit, school leaders would share their strategies for turning the wheel.  These varied significantly in form and scope. 

In one chronically underperforming high school, where the majority of the students are English Language Learners and are eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch, the central turnaround strategy involved Instructional Improvement Cycles. We observed a staff meeting where teachers were placed into three categories: high-priority, medium-priority and low-priority.  High-priority teachers would receive the most instructional coaching support, which would be systematically documented in an Excel Spreadsheet with lots of tabs. 

In another school, one hour of music instruction each day was the primary turnaround strategy.  The theory went that music instruction teaches students a number of transferable skills--among them endurance, problem solving and active listening--and functions as a “vaccine against trauma,” effectively instilling a sense of resilience in students. 

There was nothing fundamentally wrong with these strategies.  Many of them I believe in and agree with. I, too, had seen the research, much of which connected these strategies to slight gains in student performance.  However, each of these felt more like watering the leaves--sprinkling a lifesource on a visible part of a system--than engaging its roots.  

The rhetoric and symbolism of school turnaround reinforced these approaches.  An analysis of the top google images for the search term “school turnaround” produces the following images.

 School turnaround is as a courageous captain of a ship steering schools in a new direction. School turnaround is a tool kit containing things like an emphasis on the instructional core, performance evaluation systems and school-wide approaches to behaviour management.  School turnaround is a beaker filled with student-driven relationships, trauma-informed instruction and restorative discipline practices to be poured onto a school. A baptism. An adaptive shift. A sweeping out of old ideas and systems and imposition of so-called research-based ones. 

The problem with the metaphor of turnaround is that it suggests no connection between the vessel to be turned and the medium through which it must pass.  There is no essential relationship between a boat and water. A boat can move through salt water and fresh water. If a lake has eutrophicated and can no longer support aquatic life, a boat will float on it just fine. A cargo ship can pass through a patch of ocean covered in oil slick.  The thing to be turned is seperate from what it is turning on or moving through. 

Schools, unfortunately, do not float above society but are firmly grounded within it. A school is planted in the material world and is sometimes surrounded by things like concrete and liquor stores and unemployment offices.  When Tupac wrote of himself as “a rose that grew from concrete” I hardly imagine he was self-reverentially making a point about his ability to transcend his social context.  Rather, he was bringing attention to the concrete itself; It was this material that needed to be destroyed and replaced with something that could sustain human life.  Concrete, like the dry dirt outside of my elementary school, was not a suitable place for plants (or people) to grow.  

There is little significant longitudinal evidence suggesting that turnaround strategies are effective ways to improve student outcomes, even when crudely measured in things like standardized test scores.  In their 2012 report analysing 40 peer-reviewed texts on the emergent topic of “school turnaround,”  authors Tina Trujillo, Michelle Renée Valladares, and Tara Kini determined that much of the hype around turnaround as a strategy is based on  “faulty and unwarranted claims” and that research supportive of school turnaround draws on “limited, snapshot analysis” rather than longitudinal study.  The media’s enchantment with “miracle schools” has all but ended, as story after story of rapid school changes are quickly unmasked--the progress so often overstated, the result of demographic shifts, or systematic cheating scandals.  

Many of the school sites that brand themselves as transcendental fail to account for the ways that they are also exceptional: they deploy zero-tolerance policies to council out troublesome students, rely on large philanthropic gifts to operate, or are staffed by a constantly churning labor source of young teachers willing to work long hours.  We must also question where the schools that do turn around are actually going. What liberation comes from what Carter G. Woodson decried as an education “worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed”?

Despite its inefficacy, why is the turnaround strategy still with us?  Why are we, as a society, a field and--most particularly--as education leaders so enraptured by this metaphor? Perhaps because it requires that we change nothing of the social context in which education occurs. Perhaps because it fits into our social narrative about how change happens--through the hard work of individual leaders who deliver solutions to the markets they serve.  Perhaps it is simply the allure of being a captain. 

I imagine the reasons are complex.  It is reasonable to feel a sense of urgency about the state of our schools.  It is reasonable to be frustrated by the lack of progress towards achieving equational equity. William G. McCallum, mathematician and one of the lead writers of the Common Core Standards, reflected on the low US student performance on the recently released 2019 PISA data noting, “maybe this is just a really hard problem.”

To grow schools we must engage their roots.  We must visualize school transformation as ecological rather than ideological.  We must consider their lack of water and sunlight and nutrients (a walk though Boston Public Schools reveals that this is not simply a metaphor--in some schools, you literally cannot drink the water).  We must address the material realities that shape our school systems and admit that the work of eliminating poverty and racism are not the sole occupation of schools.  

What might school and district level improvement look like that imagines schools as ecological?  It would look like robust wrap-around services, such as physical and mental health care, affordable housing and job training programs.  It looks like bottom-up initiatives that are generated and led by students, teachers and communities.  It looks like iterative cycles of improvement that are considerate of the role of systemic racism and inequality in structuring school systems. 

To this day, I water the leaves of my plants and talk to them as I give them water.  In high school biology, I learned that leaves can absorb small amounts of water and as an adult my grandmother taught me that wiping the dust off of leaves is important to growing healthy plants.  While talking to them has no scientific basis, I do it anyway, because as much as I approach the world analytically, I recognize that not everything needs to be justified or explained by mechanistic relationships.  Sometimes faith and love are just enough. 

Belive in us.  I am optimistic. But a diet of wishful thinking and superficial interventions will not transform our schools, just like my whispers of love alone will not make my plants grow.  Water, afterall, rolls off of leaves.  

By Lucy Griswold 

Lucy Griswold, RIDES Fellow 2019-2021